Let Us Take You Higher
by Bob Kurson, Chicago Sun Times
"Kurson, youíre fired!"
Thatís how the dream starts. Iím fired. Or unprepared for a final exam. In one disturbingly recurrent nightmare, I show up for work wearing no trousers.
Then the dream gets good. A window blows open offering instant freedom from such dire straits.
I walk to the window, wave goodbye to reality and whoosh! . . . Iím airborne and flying free as a bird. My cares melt away over Navy Pier. By the time I buzz Soldier Field, 65,000 Bears fans stand and cheer. Chicago is carefree when viewed from the clouds and the birds donít care if you donít wear trousers.Weíve all dreamed of being able to fly. But jets cause claustrophobia, and earning a pilotís license is too expensive Ė and too risky Ė for all but the richest and bravest among us. Iíve discovered a solution. A safer, easy and quick way for anyone to fly low and slow. Read on, landlocked soul. Youíre about to become a bird.
"Itís really, a fancy go-kart with a parachute attached." Thatís Wyman "Hop" Hochstetlerís description of the red contraption he pushes onto a finely groomed field behind his home in Walkerton, Indiana, near LaPorte. I walk behind, eyes bulging.
I can teach someone to fly this craft Ė solo Ė in about 90 minutes," Hop says. He stops pushing momentarily, shields the sun from his tanned, friendly face and jokingly adds, "maybe a little longer for you."
Iím nervous enough already. But my intensive research has revealed that this . . . thing . . . is the safest and easiest flying machine ever built.
"It certainly is a safe machine; theyíre well-built, structurally well-designed and the fact that youíre suspended from a parachute clearly makes it one of the safest forms of flying," said Mary Jones, editor of the Experimenter magazine, a publication devoted to ultralight and experimental aircraft.
So, if all goes well, I will pilot the craft at an altitude of about 300 feet Ė by myself Ė in less than two hours.
As owner of Hopís Powered Parachutes, Hop, a 63-year old licensed pilot, has trained more than 1500 people to fly this mass of metal he calls a Buckeye powered parachute.
"Iíve taught students as young as 10 and as old as 79," Hop says. "They come from all walks of life with a desire to see what creation looks like a few hundred feet above."
The Buckeye powered parachute is pretty nearly what Hop says it is. Made of aircraft-grade aluminum and parts, the three-wheeled machine uses a state-of-the-art parachute as its wing. This ingenious innovation provides three distinct advantages:
- If the engine quits, you float gently back to earth.
- You cannot stall, flip or roll (the primary safety hazards in "fixed-wingí aircraft).
- And the machine flies at a constant 26 mph, providing a feeling of birdlike flight.
"If you treat a powered parachute properly, it becomes one of the safest forms not only of flying, but of any kind of recreation" said Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, "Itís slow, it stays low, thereís a frame around you and you can land it in any field, even a backyard for that matter. And, of course, you have an open parachute over you at all times."
"Letís warm the engine up," Hop says. He allows me to yank the starter cord. On pull number three, the 65-horsepower engine bites and the craftís propeller bursts into action, Hey, I figure, Iím doing great already. "Youíll be taking off in about five minutes," Hop shouts over the engineís roar.
The bones in my knees turn to rubber.
Hop has strapped me into the Buckeye. The parachute lies lazily on the grass behind the machine, oblivious to the waterfalls of adrenaline that pummel my stomach lining. This must be how Wilbur and Orville felt, I theorize, Flight. Freedom, the exhilaration of . . .
"Can you hear me, Bob?"
Hopís voice explodes into my headphones, hurtling me from Kittyhawk back into the here-and-now. I fumble for the talk button on my on-board radio.
Oh, brother. I canít believe I said, "Roger."
Hop uses the radio to guide students through every moment of their first flight. According to experienced flyers, there is no man as calm and as reassuring as Hop.
"When you feel comfortable, Bob, increase the throttle just a smidgen and get the cart rolling," Hop says. This is the moment of truth. If I add power, my dream can come true. If not, at least I can say I tried.
I add power.
New students who arrive at Hopís place (an 80-minute drive from downtown Chicago) watch a short instructional video. The powered parachute pilots on the film look so carefree and happy youíd swear theyíd just won the lottery, and you make a mental note to smile, too, when you land so gracefully.
Hopís gracious wife, Marilyn, offers students a cold RC and a stack of waivers to sign. You can fly without the cola but not without the forms.
Next, Hop reviews the hand signals heíll use in case the radios fail. They are simpler than those used by a third base coach, but you pray youíll never need them.
"Hereís what weíre going to do," Hop says. "After you take off, youíll do some flying over the field, get used to the craft and the area. Maybe youíll see some deer. Donít worry; Iíll be watching you and talking to you the whole time. I wonít let you get into trouble.
Weíll do a couple of practice approaches, then when you feel comfortable, weíll have you land."
Hop gives a written test to determine whether youíve paid attention. Then he makes a final determination.
"If I smell any alcohol on a student, they donít fly, no exceptions, " he says. "And I pay attention to a studentís attention span. If I see a personís mind wandering while Iím talking, they donít fly."
I paid attention. Believe me, I paid attention.
"OK, Bob, give it about a half-inch more power and check overhead to see if the chute is up," Hop says into my headphones.
Iím moving along the ground. Like a turtle, but Iím moving. I look overhead and sure enough, thereís the parachute.
"OK," Hop says, "Keep moving slowly until the chute centers itself overhead."
The chute obeys.
"Now go to full power, full power, full power!"
I pull the throttle back and engine screams like a devil doused with holy water. The grass whizzes past underneath as the cart gains momentum. Suddenly, miraculously, Iím up. Iím flying. By myself!
"Beautiful takeoff, Bob. Youíre gonna be a pilot!"
I make my first in-air calculation at about 100 feet: If Hop said "beautiful." I probably hadnít been killed.
The Indiana fields below are stunning and calm. Hop tells me to reduce power until Iím flying level. I do so and take in the gorgeous countryside the way eagles do, slowly and at about 300 feet. I press the left footbar and sure enough, I turn left. For 20 minutes I fly where I please: around Hopís house, beyond a neighborís barn and over four brown cows who couldnít care less that I was living a dream.
A new pilot pays Hop $175 for lessons and a solo flight. Student can then rent Hopís Buckeyes for $1.85 per minute (with Hopís instruction) or $1 per minute on their own. (By contrast, students who take conventional Cessna flight lessons typically study for 60 hours and pay $4,000 to $5,000 for a pilotís license.)
After a few practice approaches, Hop has me lined up with the runway. All that remains, he says, is to reduce the power and the bird will land itself. By now I trust this beautiful machine completely. I trim power and a minute later land so softly not even the earthworms jump. Hop, Marilyn and their grandson, Bobby (age 13 and already a veteran Buckeye pilot), converge to congratulate me. Forget poetic meanderings: Iím euphoric. In Marilynís kitchen, still huffing with glee, I chug an RC and pose for a Polaroid.
Marilyn tapes it to her kitchen cabinet next to photos of hundreds of others who have fulfilled their dreams.
If youíre out there, look for me. Iím the pilot to the left of the fridge.